ALPHABET SOUP

PeteGamlen.jpg

Restaurant names are becoming more complicated and enigmatic. Christopher Hirst asks the experts what’s going on...

Food and drink are no longer enough. Increasingly, restaurants also provide customers with a puzzle—why do they have such baffling names? Recent London openings include Karpo, which sounds like an intriguing cross between Kafka and Harpo Marx, but is actually the “Greek goddess of fruits of the earth”; 10 Cases, which might suggest a link with Sherlock Holmes but in fact refers to an idiosyncratic wine-buying policy; and the bar/bistro Soif, the French for thirst, but which some customers have taken to be a philosophical question—“So if...?”

At one time restaurants were almost always named after their founding proprietor—venerable survivors include Rules in London (1798), Keen’s in New York (1885) and Café Procope in Paris (1686)—but today the whole lexicon has been plundered. In those cities you can now dine in establishments named after an ancient dish of jellified pork (Brawn, in east London, serves food that is “honest and simple with a respect for tradition”), the ship on which Darwin developed his ideas about evolution (Beagle, which stresses it “is not named after the dog”, and aims for “creative American cooking”) and a man best known for beating naughty children (Au Père Fouettard, near Les Halles, where the manageress apparently “runs a tight ship”).

“Every new opening I deal with wants to have a catchy name,” says Maureen Mills of the restaurant-PR specialists Network London. “There are three rules: make sure it’s not rude, people can spell it, and it’s not in an obscure language.” After that anything goes, though customers might have to overcome an initial aversion at Skin & Bones in Portland, Oregon, or Virus in Ghent, where the food can be as bizarre as the name: I once ate muskrat there.

The word “restaurant” was originally a term for restorative broth. In the years before the French revolution, its meaning extended to the premises where soup and other foods were sold. One of the first Parisian restaurants was called Boeuf à la Mode, while today the hottest joint in town is Chateaubriand. (“Such a terrific name,” says Mills. “I don’t know why it wasn’t used before.”) Some names get used more than once—purely by coincidence, both Kent and Paris have restaurants named after the Roman food-writer Apicius, while in either New York or Perth you can dine at a Balthazar—named after a massive champagne bottle, or perhaps one of the three Wise Men. (The other two magi had equally ringing monikers. There’s already a Le Melchior in Cahors, south-west France, but Caspar is still up for grabs.) There was a third Balthazar, in London, though that changed owing to “trade-name infringement”. Its new name, Manson, has unfortunate connotations for anyone who was reading a newspaper in 1968.

But does it matter? “The name alone is not make-or-break,” says Richard Chinn, a senior strategist at the brand consultancy Wolff Olins. “But it can signpost a concept and make it easier for people to get some idea of the place.” Maureen Mills agrees. “Names like Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley, or Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s, act as mini press-releases: they tell you the name of the chef, and where he is. More casual places, such as Pollan Street Social, give the street address and get across the concept.” Others, though, give a street address, but not necessarily the right street address: east London’s North Road Restaurant is on St John Street, while its near neighbour St John Bread and Wine is actually on Commercial Road. Perhaps “Commercial Bread and Wine” wouldn’t have had the right ring.

Names come in clearly discernible waves. Single-word, minimalist abstractions—Sketch, Texture, Maze, Public, Alias—were fashionable in Britain and America in the mid-2000s. When Gordon Ramsay opened Aubergine in 1993, a restaurant named after a vegetable seemed odd, but it was followed by a whole green-grocery of fruit and veg, including Medlar, Quince and Tamarind.

A two-syllable, two-vowel-sound trend started with Nobu in 1994, picked up steam with London’s Moro in 1997, then avalanched in the 2000s: Cracco in Milan, Needoo in London, Noma in Copenhagen. They’re snappy but heading towards baby talk.

The word “kitchen” is much in vogue. Mills recalls that when Tom Aitkens opened Tom’s Kitchen in Chelsea six years ago, “his board of directors was concerned that it was too tacky, too informal. But it was perfect. Bistro, brasserie and café have all become over-familiar.” Now, with a Kitchin (the spelling comes from the restaurateur Tom Kitchin) in Edinburgh, a Kitchen Restaurant in Inverness, and a Kitchen W8 in London, you could argue that “kitchen” is edging towards over-familiarity.

Some kinds of names never go out fashion. Bad puns still have their grip—there’s Aunt Chiladas in Arizona, Thaitanic in London, Vin sur Vin in Paris (echoing the top mark of 20 out of 20, or vingt sur vingt), and a fish-and-chip shop in Goole, Yorkshire, called Frying Nemo. An equally timeless, but more bearable, approach is to raid the farmyard: The Spotted Pig in New York, The Potted Pig in Cardiff. And the king of all the animals is actually a bird: Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck (1995). He is “not 100% sure” where the name came from.

The most newsworthy new restaurant in Britain in the past 18 months was also Blumenthal’s. The name of his first venture in London, Dinner, was a reference to the historic gastronomy on the menu (“dinner” originally meant breakfast, before becoming lunch and then supper). But it’s one thing to be historical, another to feel natural. “I think it’s odd,” Mills says. “Having lunch at Dinner is weird.”

Which new openings have had winning names? Richard Chinn nominates three. “Nopi sounds immediately friendly and colloquial,” he says. “Polpo feels very friendly with an Italian element. Duck Soup instantly gives the place an edge.” He may have spotted a trend: all have names that are more memorable than meaningful. Nopi, an upmarket venture from the saladmeister Yotam Ottolenghi, takes its name from its location north of Piccadilly—though, unlike Tribeca in New York (which lent its name to Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Grill), it is doubtful whether any of the locals, except possibly an estate agent, use the term.

Russell Norman, the owner of Polpo, explains his thinking: “We wanted a word that was short, memorable and impossible to mispronounce. Polpo means octopus, one of my favourite animals, but that was coincidental. The shape of the word is more important than the meaning.”

Duck Soup’s owner, Clare Lattin, says the name came about “because we loved the daftness of it. When we realised we were next door to the Groucho Club, we nearly abandoned it. But in the end, we couldn’t think of anything else as good, so we stuck with it.”

Some names come out of the blue. While seeking inspiration for his new London venture in 1926, an Italian restaurateur called Pepino Leoni saw a poster for the 1925 film “Quo Vadis”. The restaurant that bears its name can still be found in Soho. In 2002, about to open a place specialising in French food, the British chef Henry Harris was forced into creative thinking by his signmaker. “He said if we didn’t come up with a name right then, we wouldn’t have a sign in time. So I put together a long list of French words, including a few writers as fillers: Beaumarchais, Molière, Racine…Going through them, we went, ‘Crap, crap, crap’ until we reached Racine and someone said, ‘Racine, of course, French for root. Absolutely brilliant.’ So there it is. Both interpretations are true.”

The restaurateur Will Smith explains the origin of Arbutus, in central London, thus: “We discovered there used to be an arbutus, or strawberry tree, around the corner in Soho Square. The name felt good and sounded great. It was a bit like naming a child. At first, people went, ‘Eh?’ but soon said ‘That’s interesting’ and accepted it. Also, arbutus fruit have a culinary application in Portugal, where it is made into a spirit.” So does Arbutus sell arbutus spirit? “No.”

Perhaps the ultimate in restaurant names is the latest venture from New York restaurateur Danny Meyer. Though outposts of his empire have solidly geographical names such as Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern and The Modern at the Museum of Modern Art, this does not apply to the newcomer at 945 Madison Ave. It is called Untitled. This may sound unimaginative, pretentious even, but it is actually witty and apposite. Untitled is the restaurant at the Whitney Museum of American Art. 

Illustration Pete Gamlen

Christopher Hirst is the author of "Love Bites" and used to be the Weasel in the Independent